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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER

In End, Suns Cut Down to Size

November 02, 1996|Mark Heisler

"There is life after Charles. It just isn't as funny."

--Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons

*

Things change fast. Shaquille O'Neal heads west, Charles Barkley goes east and suddenly the Phoenix Suns don't have a rivalry with the Lakers but a longshot.

O'Neal began reconfiguring the Western Conference on Friday night, starting with the smurfs Barkley left behind. He had 23 points, the Lakers 96, the Suns 82.

Meanwhile in the relieved East, O'Neal's former rivals had a few words of advice for his new conference:

Good luck.

"There are a few players who distort the game," says Pacer President Donnie Walsh, "and Shaq is one of them. If you don't have someone to guard Shaq, then you're going to be in trouble.

"If you don't have size and bulk, then it's over."

For the size-less, unbulky Suns, who erased 18 points of a 19-point deficit in the third quarter, it wasn't over till it was over. Of all the small teams the West has been famous for, they've been the smallest, one season even daring to release both their centers, Mark West and Oliver Miller, picking up Joe Kleine and Danny Schayes off the waiver wire before the season.

Kleine still remains, four years later. Fitzsimmons started him Friday and told the other players to double-team O'Neal as soon as he touched the ball. Shaq blithely passed off most of the night, shooting at only the best opportunities, a short turnaround here, a dunk there.

"Before the game's over, he'll show you four or five moves," said Pete Newell, the former Cal coach who tutored O'Neal at his big man's camp before Shaq's first two NBA seasons, watching from the press box.

"People say he doesn't have any moves, but he's always got people around him."

For the moment, Fitzsimmons has no choice but to pile on the Lilliputians. The closest thing he has to a starting NBA center, Hot Rod Williams, recently underwent surgery to have a piece of metal removed from the bottom of his right foot. (This, said the Suns, "is not related to the plantar fasciaitis in his right foot that sidelined him through the preseason.")

The tip-off is that at one time or another most of the Suns' "big men"--Williams, Danny Manning, Wayman Tisdale, Robert Horry--have all played small forward.

On the bright side for the Suns, most of them will be free agents next summer and can be renounced.

"This is a different team," he garrulous Fitzsimmons growled a few days ago. "We have to play a different style of game and we're adjusting to that. . . .

"We're trying to figure out who we are, really. Who is our personality and who are we? We just take it like that. Take it one day at a time."

The Suns are now running the triangle offense the Bulls made famous. Of course, the Suns don't have Michael Jordan, or even Scottie Pippen, and the offense takes a long time to learn, so you get the idea. According to one Sun, looking on the bright side, if they don't know what they're doing, how can the opposition?

"I ran the triangles in 1970, it's nothing new to me," Fitzsimmons says. "I ran 'em '70 through '72 and was very successful in Phoenix with that group I had in those years, before y'all were born. I spent a year with Tex Winter at Kansas State. I learned as much as I possibly could about it. Tex loves to say, 'I taught him most of it but I didn't teach him everything.'

"I think it's good for this team. It's a system. I asked Danny Ainge [who will succeed Fitzsimmons next season]. Danny likes it. I asked him, 'Look, I don't want to put it in if it's just for maybe a year.'

"This is a system and it takes years to perfect it. You have to get so you can read, you go back to school, you read defenses . . . and right now we're in grammar school. We hope we get out of first, second grade and get up to fourth and fifth grade a little later, maybe even junior high.

"You never heard me say anything about that other word, that nasty word, what is that nasty word everybody talks about?"

Rebuilding?

"Rebuilding means you're gonna lose," Fitzsimmons said. "I think we can win. We won 41 last year and weren't very good."

They were right there for three quarters Friday, but in the NBA, it takes four. The spunky little Suns flew home to face Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets tonight. Warm up those Lilliputians.

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